“The era of exclusion is over,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said to a room full of delegates at the 26th Ordinary Summit of the African Union (AU), which took place from January 21-31, 2016 at the AU Headquarters in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia. This year’s designated theme, “African Year of Human Rights with a particular focus on the Rights of Women,” marked the second consecutive year that gender equality ranked as the AU’s highest priority and reminded African leaders of the importance of furthering the organization’s vision as embodied in Agenda 2063, which “emphasizes a bottom-up, inclusive, participatory, and people-driven approach to development.” Ban K-moon explained, “To change the dynamic, we must resolutely invest in empowering women and expanding opportunities available to them.” Since the AU’s establishment in 1963, the organization has implemented an extensive body of legal mechanisms to address and promote gender equality and women’s rights, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
The 2016 summit focused on raising awareness of women’s rights and creating implementation strategies to increase women’s participation in politics, access to education and healthcare, address gender-based violence, and promote economic inclusion, to name a few. According to Mahawa Kaba Wheeler, the Director of the African Union Women Gender and Development (AUWGDD), “the AU believes that removing [the] barriers that impede women from fully enjoying their human rights, can empower the continent.” However, while Ms. Wheeler praised the continent for being “one of the fastest growing developing regions in the world, registering economic growth levels ranging from 2 percent to 11 percent” per year, she conceded that African women continue to remain “disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination, and exploitation.”
Consequently, African women continue to face many obstacles to enjoying equal rights and opportunities. For example, while school enrollment of young girls has increased by 56% across the continent since 1970, 28 million girls still do not attend school. Early child marriages, in some countries with rates as high as 50%, also serve as an impediment to gender equality. Specifically looking to legal frameworks, 17 countries have yet to ratify the Maputo Protocol, considered “the first comprehensive legally binding instrument on the promotion and protection of women’s human rights in Africa.” This instrument is important as it guarantees equal rights for women in the political process, as well as control over their reproductive health, including an end to the unsafe practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Furthermore, many countries have conflicting dual legal systems comprised of both a formal legislative framework and customary law. While customary law is traditionally easier for local populations to access, it also usually reinforces gender stereotypes against women and fosters inequality. Moreover, the exclusion of customary law from constitutional protection isolates women since the issues that commonly affect them regularly fall within the legal spheres controlled by customary systems.
Although the continent may have a long way to go in forging a path towards greater gender equality, vast achievements can and should be noted for women’s rights. For example, of 54 African Heads of States and Governments, three are women, including the presidents of Liberia and Mauritius, and the Interim President of the Central African Republic, a feat that was unthinkable only a decade ago. In addition, 15 African countries rank in the top 37 in the world for women’s participation in national parliaments. The AU itself embodies this trend in “gender parity,” with five of the ten commissioners being women. Moreover, 2016 marks 36 years since the AU’s adoption of The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, considered a key instrument of global policy on gender equality.
In order to continue this progress, the AU advocated that member states should enhance “gender-responsive budgeting” in order to provide education for girls and create skill-building programs for women. The Commission further suggested greater cooperation with civil society organizations, and explained that by “bridg[ing] the gap between continental, regional, state, and local levels,” member states can create larger networks for working towards solutions for women.
The AU will face many challenges throughout 2016, not only with responding effectively to gender inequality, but also with ending the crisis in Burundi and coordinating the fight against terrorism. The close of the Summit symbolizes, at the very least, a continental commitment to alleviating the barriers to women’s rights. In his final statement to the Summit, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged member states to remember what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “everyone, without distinction of any kind, is entitled to human rights.